Since its founding in 1982 under the shadow of the Big East, the Atlantic 10 has plotted an upward course that goes something like this: Step 1—Play high-caliber ball. Over the past two seasons, the conference has landed five NCAA berths. This established credibility for Step 2—Get a decent television package. Last year the A-10 syndicated its Sunday games in the Northeast and appeared regularly on cable. This season the networks are getting into the picture as well. Without exposure on the tube, it's nearly impossible these days to reach Step 3—Expand your recruiting base. As perhaps a sign of things to come, Temple went across many a county line to snare Mark Macon, the coveted guard from Saginaw, Mich.
But this step-by-step style of progress has been much slower than the leaps-and-bounds growth of the Big East. "The Atlantic 10 schools used to sit around and worry about the Big East," says Bray Cary, president of Creative Sports Marketing, the Charlotte, N.C., firm that promotes the Atlantic 10. "It's got a lot of the same cities, a lot of the same traditions. But there's definitely room for another guy who wants to compete." Adds commissioner Ron Bertovich, "It took a while to get going in the right direction, and now we are."
Today the league is primed for Step 4—Get to the Final Four. It has a team that can do it: Temple. With a solid program using mostly local talent, the Owls last season won 32 games and earned USBWA coach-of-the-year honors for John Chaney. This year Chaney has the prospect of a lifetime in the 6'5" Macon. "He's the first blue-chip player I've ever recruited," the coach says. "We just don't go after a player with the expectation that he'll end all evils." Macon will help erase one deficiency immediately, the departure of A-10 MVP Nate Blackwell. Macon was himself the MVP of the McDonald's All-America game in Philadelphia. Blackwell aside, the Owls return intact, with playmaker Howard Evans dealing to shooting forward Mike Vreeswyk, center Ramon Rivas and likely NBA first-rounder Tim Perry. The 6'9" Perry is a typical Temple-goer, a player who has flourished. At Freehold ( N.J.) High, Bruce Springsteen's alma mater, he was known less as a basketball star than as a drummer in a rock band. This season Chaney has encouraged Perry to bang the boards.
Last season West Virginia went to the NCAA tourney and, for the seventh straight time, won 20 games. With freshman Chris Brooks, a 6'6" dynamo along Charles Barkley lines, free of Bylaw 5-1-(j), the Mountaineers will be on the highroad again. Brooks will join a frontcourt rotation with the muscular Darryl Prue, the polished Tyrone Shaw and 6'10" Desmond Clifton, a transfer from Kansas City Community College. Tom Penders brought fast-break basketball to Rhode Island, and it carried a team that was picked for last in the A-10 to the NIT. The entire squad returns this season. In a conference known for its backcourts, the Rams may have the best in seniors Carlton Owens (see box) and Tom Garrick. Kenny Green, the league's freshman of the year, is at forward. The Rams are a prime example of the conference's rising fortunes. "We're not better than the Big East, but we're getting there," says Penders.
When it comes to recruiting big men, the Atlantic 10 hasn't been wildly successful. But St. Joseph's has one of the best centers in the country in 6'8", 250-pound senior Rodney Blake (87 blocks last season). "He's a bull," says coach Jim Boyle. "He's a treat to watch." A flock of youngsters back Blake, including sophomore guard Ivan (Pick) Brown and freshman Richard Stewart, Toronto's Metro Player of the Year.
Joe Paterno believes Penn State is poised to make some postseason basketball noise along the lines of his football team. The Nittany Lions have five starters back from a 15-12 team, with front-courters Tom Hovasse and Ed Fogel to shoulder the load. But a patty-cake non-league schedule against teams like Lehigh and Juniata won't toughen them for the A-10 grind. "To move up in the league will be a real challenge," says Lions coach Bruce Parkhill.
Though Rhode Island made a bold move last year, the A-10 seems to have stratified. "You have the top five and then the bottom five," says Penders, "and I can't see any difference among the bottom five." St. Bonaventure won just five games last year, but coach Ron DeCarli has enough talent to double that this season. Duquesne returns swingman Brian Shanahan and introduces Darrell White, who set scoring records at Allegheny (Pa.) Community College. George Washington must replace three of its top scorers, but it does have its best player back in guard Gerald Jackson. In the A-10's early days, Rutgers was the standard-bearer; now the Knights are merely bearing up. Coach Craig Little-page needs three of his better players to recover from injuries. Shooting guard Lorenzo Sutton will lead Massachusetts, but a lead guard is what the Minutemen need.
Both halves of the Atlantic 10 could be uplifted by the play of its top clubs. "We're more excited than ever," says Bertovich. "We're finally ready to take the ball and run." Big bad East, beware.